MOHAN KUMAR looks at his watch and inserts a hand in the pocket of his kurta, feeling the cold metal of the pistol. It is a timely reminder of the mission he is here to undertake.
It has been over an hour since he entered the gates of Number Six. The strong police presence outside the farmhouse had surprised him. But luckily there was no screening through a door-frame metal-detector for those arriving with their invitation cards.
Vicky Rai had greeted him in his usual pompous manner. 'Hello, Kumar – or should I address you as Gandhi Baba? Glad you could make it.' The hostility between them hung in the air like fog. For a brief moment he had flirted with the idea of shooting Vicky Rai then and there, but his hands had suddenly turned clammy and his heart had started palpitating alarmingly, and he had quietly slunk away into the garden.
His mind has been playing tricks on him all evening, strengthening his resolve one moment and breaking it the next. He swings between confidence and despair. And matters are not helped by the strangers who keep distracting him. They waylay him every few minutes, either to compliment him on his exploits as Gandhi Baba or to seek a favour. 'You deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, Gandhi Baba,' says one. 'Would you agree to address the World Leadership Conclave next July?' requests another. He smiles at them, while inside him the anxiety is growing. He wants to end it, quickly.
To take his mind off the issue of murder, he tries to focus on the mechanics of the act. The party is much bigger than he expected – there must be at least four hundred people on the sprawling lawns of Number Six, another hundred inside the house – and he will have to shoot Vicky Rai in full view of all the guests. This does not faze him. On the contrary, he relishes the prospect of a public execution. It will be an apt lesson for all future Vicky Rais. He touches the butt of the Walther PPK again and senses its power seep into his hand.
He moves towards the gazebo, hoping to locate a suitable vantage spot. The swimming pool is bathed in light, its cool blue water shimmering like glass under the bright spotlights. A girl in a blue bikini suddenly dives into the pool, splashing him with water. As he brushes the drops from his khadi vest, a flashbulb pops in his face, blinding him momentarily. He loses his footing and is about to fall into the pool when someone catches his arm and steadies him. For a few seconds he sees only blackness. When his vision clears he blinks at his benefactor. It is a bearded waiter in a red-and-black outfit. 'Thank you,' he mumbles, feeling flustered. He will have to be more careful, he reminds himself.
There are a good number of people around the pool, sipping wine and swaying to the music. They are all under twenty-five, and he feels old and out of place. He is about to turn away when a statuesque blonde girl in a body-hugging dress approaches him, strutting like a model on a catwalk. 'Ghandi Baba, how lovely to see you,' she drawls, pirouetting seductively in front of him. He can smell liquor on her breath. 'I'm Lisa. I'm in India for a photo shoot on the Kama Sutra. I could teach you some interesting positions.' She laughs and tries to kiss him.
'Ram, Ram,' he says and steps back hurriedly. In the process he collides with a waiter heading for the bar with six bottles of whisky on a tray. The tray falls from the waiter's hands and the bottles tumble to the paved stone floor and shatter. The air begins to reek of alcohol. So pungent are the fumes that he begins to feel dizzy. He stumbles away from the pool, feeling nauseous and strangely light-headed. He lurches down the lawn, moving further and further away from the crowd.
Before he knows it, he is deep inside a wooded area, where the lights of the garden do not reach. The moon is a giant white disc hanging above the treetops, its chalky light the only illumination in the forested gloom. He hears the steady gurgle of a waterfall some distance away, but closer to him the only sound is that of his own laboured breathing. He is wheezing slightly from all the running. Something is happening inside his brain, some kind of chemical reaction. His mind has become a kaleidoscope of shifting thoughts and images. Old suppressed memories are rising up, a fog is lifting, but only partially.
His foot crunches on something. First there is a creak and the snap of a breaking twig, and then he hears a faint hissing sound. He looks down to find a snake on the ground, and from the shape of its large head he knows instantly that it is a cobra. It is poised just above his right leg, its slippery tongue flickering in and out. He freezes and the blood stops coursing through his veins.
The snake rears its head, preparing to strike. I am going to die, he thinks. Just then he hears another twig break and suddenly a hand grips the head of the snake and lifts it off the ground. The cobra writhes for a while till it is flung far away.
'Who… who are you?' he asks, trying to peer into the silvery darkness.
A shadow shifts and a strange young man steps forward. He is dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, with a red Gap cap on his head and a black bag draped over his shoulder. His skin is so black that he merges with the darkness, but the whites of his eyes shine like torches. 'I am Jiba Korwa from Jharkhand,' he says.
'What are you doing here?'
'Thank you. You saved my life.'
'And who are you?'
'I am Mohan… Mohandas… Karam… Kumar. No, no – that is not right… Let me say it again. I – am – Mohan Kumar. Yes. And I hate snakes.'
'I have removed the snake, but you are still fearful.'
'How can you tell?'
'I can smell your fear. Is it because of the shadow?'
'The shadow that dogs you like the moon. The embekte.'
'Embekte? What is that?'
'There are two spirits in every man – eeka and embekte. When a man dies of natural causes, like an illness, he becomes an eeka and goes to live below the earth. But when a man dies suddenly, such as if he is killed, then the other spirit embekte comes out and tries to find a new body. It takes temporary shelter in whichever living body it can find. This is what you people call a ghost. And a ghost has taken hold of your body.'
'Oh my God, so you can actually see it?'
'No, I cannot see it. I can only see its shadow. Is it a good spirit or a bad one?'
'A very bad one. It makes me do all kinds of weird things. Can you… can you do something about it?'
'The doctors say I have DID, but I know it is really a case of possession. I need an exorcist, not a psychotherapist. Do you know how to take a spirit out?'
'Yes. I am half a torale. I can get rid of the shadow.'
'Then do so. I want my life back. In return I'll give you whatever you want.'
'Can you give me some money?'
'Two times nine thousand.'
'That's eighteen thousand. That's a lot of money. What do you want it for?'
'To buy tickets to go back to my village.'
'Let's do a deal. If you can cure me, the money is yours.'
'Then lie down.'
'Here, on the ground?'
'Yes. And take off your shirt. I need to put some red clay on your chest and face.'
'Now that you've saved my life, how can I refuse your instructions?' He strips off his kurta and vest and lies down on the hard ground, unmindful of the ants which are crawling over his legs and the twigs digging into his back.
The tribal unzips his black canvas bag and takes out a lump of red clay, which he mixes with pig fat. He then draws a fine herringbone design on Mohan Kumar's chest and daubs a few horizontal lines on his face.
'What are you doing?' Mohan worries.
'I am summoning the spirits, who will draw away the embekte. Now close your eyes and don't speak.'
The tribal takes out a charm necklace made of bones and drapes it around Mohan's neck. Then, putting his left hand on Kumar's head, and holding a small white bone in his right, he begins chanting, swaying back and forth in a circular motion, faster and faster.
Mohan feels an excruciating pain, as though a corkscrew is being twisted inside his brain. He groans in agony, feeling his skin being peeled off. And then he passes out.
When he opens his eyes, the tribal is still sitting by his side, gazing at him intently.
'Is it done?' Mohan asks.
'Yes. I took the embekte out of your body.'
Mohan presses his temples and finds that the pain has gone. He feels cleansed, whole. He sits up and begins putting on his clothes. 'You have done something which no one else could do. That spirit was causing me a lot of trouble, even though it was that of a very famous man.'
'Yes, the spirit which possessed me was that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Surely you have heard of Mahatma Gandhi?'
'No, you are mistaken. It was not a man who possessed you, it was a woman.'
'Woman? How do you know?'
'I talked to it. It was very stubborn.'
'What was her name?'
'Ruby Gill!' Mohan exclaims. He feels the bulk of the pistol in his kurta pocket and becomes thoughtful. 'So all along it was Ruby Gill leading me on, pretending to be Mahatma Gandhi… It's beginning to make sense now.'
The tribal tugs at his sleeve. 'Will you give me the money?'
'Yes, yes, of course.' He opens a black leather wallet and takes out a wad of thousand-rupee notes. 'You asked for eighteen; I am giving you twenty. This can buy you a ticket even to London!'
The tribal accepts the money and bows in gratitude. 'You are very kind.'
Mohan Kumar scrubs his face with a handkerchief, removing traces of the red clay. Standing up, he dusts his dhoti. 'This is the last time I am wearing this silly dress.'
He steps out from the thicket on to the lawn and looks at his watch. It is a quarter past eleven. The party appears to be in full swing. There are at least half a dozen girls in the pool and the bar area is thronged with guests. He strides quickly towards the gazebo.
'Do you have Chivas?' he asks the bartender, who nods. 'Then give me a large Scotch, neat.'
He gulps down the whisky in one shot, wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his kurta and asks for a refill. Spotting the CEO of Rai Textile Mill, he pats him jovially on the back. 'So, Raha, how are things?'
Raha turns around, adjusts his steel-rimmed glasses, and is surprised to see Mohan Kumar. 'I didn't expect to see you at this party, Mr Kumar,' he says coldly.
'Let bygones be bygones, Raha. I was suffering from a medical disorder, but I am fully cured now. In fact, I will explain it all to Vicky. Have you seen him?'
'He has just gone inside the house with Shabnam Saxena.'
Mohan drains his second glass and starts walking towards the house. The blonde model who had tried to kiss him is standing in the way, sipping what looks like a strawberry daiquiri. 'Ooh, Ghandi Baba, you are back,' she coos.
He smiles at her. 'Yes, I am back. And I am keen for some experiments in untruth. When do you want to begin?'
She comes within kissing distance of him. 'How about right now?'
'I need to sort out a few issues first. But good things come to those who wait.' He winks and pinches her bottom.